Perhaps the best move Ryan Day made in his first year as Ohio State football head coach was hiring Jeff Hafley to co-man his defense and oversee the Buckeye defensive backs.
The seven-year NFL secondary coach was part of a near worst-to-first turnaround for the Buckeyes on defense in his first year, but successful assistants don’t go unnoticed for long in Columbus.
It was a hire so good that Day was tasked with finding a replacement less than a year later.
“It’s my job to go find them — the best in the country,” Day said. “I felt like I did that last year. I’m going to do that again this year.”
About a month after the end of the Buckeyes’ season though, and neither the best nor any secondary coach had landed a spot on the Ohio State staff.
That all changed Monday, when Ohio State confirmed mounting suspicions that Tennessee Titans defensive backs coach and former six-year Buckeye assistant Kerry Coombs would replace Hafley.
“Kerry Coombs is the coach I was really hoping we could hire and bring back to Ohio State,” Day said in a press release. “He is an excellent coach, and he has had two outstanding seasons in the NFL on Mike Vrabel’s staff with the Tennessee Titans.”
Coombs helped develop five cornerbacks into first-round NFL Draft picks from 2014 to ’18 during his first stint at Ohio State, with a list including Denzel Ward, Eli Apple, Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Bradley Roby.
In fact, each cornerback to start under Coombs at Ohio State reached the NFL.
A streak of three consecutive Buckeye cornerbacks selected within the top 15 picks of the draft ended when Coombs left for the NFL following his only year coaching alongside Day in Columbus.
In former secondary coach Taver Johnson’s one year with the Buckeyes, the Ohio State defense allowed more yards through the air than all but one year of Coombs’ tenure.
Ohio State will likely start a new streak this year with junior cornerback Jeff Okudah’s projected top 10 potential, but development may be sorely needed on a secondary that has to replace three out of four starters in 2020.
A third new secondary coach in three seasons may not be an ideal situation for Buckeye defensive backs — or it wouldn’t, if not for the fact that Coombs recruited six of Ohio State’s returning defensive backs.
“I’ve spent a season on staff with Kerry, and I really like his coaching and knowledge of the game, but I also like that he knows Ohio State, and he knows how to recruit to Ohio State,” Day said in the press release.
Among the defensive backs Coombs helped get to Ohio State is redshirt sophomore cornerback Shaun Wade, who decided to return to the program for a fourth year despite the potential of becoming a first- or second-round pick.
Wade will be the lone returning starter and move to the outside position after playing in the slot in 2019.
“He should be a Thorpe Award finalist right off the get-go,” Day said. “He’s got a chance to be one of the best corners in the country and hopefully a first-round draft pick next year. That’s huge for us.”
Beyond Wade, though, Ohio State’s secondary will be full of question marks.
Sophomore cornerback Sevyn Banks and junior cornerbacks Amir Riep and Marcus Williamson were also recruited by Coombs, and along with sophomore cornerback Cameron Brown, figure to fill out the Buckeyes’ rotation at the position in 2020.
Coombs also recruited redshirt freshman cornerback Tyreke Johnson, a former five-star recruit, though he played limited snaps in 2019.
Another Coombs recruit in redshirt freshman safety Marcus Hooker may see more time in 2020 alongside sophomore safety Josh Proctor. Day said the defense will likely feature more double-high safety looks next season.
Coombs’ Titans were No. 6 in the NFL in passing defense in 2018 and No. 12 in points allowed in 2019.
In what may outwardly appear to be a state of flux for the Ohio State secondary next year, hiring Coombs actually supplies stability –– which is what Day wanted most all along.
“We’re not all of a sudden going to change,” Day said. “Jeff came in to run this defense, and he did a great job. But we’re going to fill that in, and we’re going to continue to do the same thing we’re doing on defense in the future.”